Oral History - Islamic Narratives

Oral History - Islamic Narratives - (MAL Hunt/ey—...

Info iconThis preview shows pages 1–13. Sign up to view the full content.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 1

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 2
Background image of page 3

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 4
Background image of page 5

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 6
Background image of page 7

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 8
Background image of page 9

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 10
Background image of page 11

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 12
Background image of page 13
This is the end of the preview. Sign up to access the rest of the document.

Unformatted text preview: (MAL Hunt/ey— Aggro/r210 xix/tees Fri/ES PREPARlNG FOR THE INTERVIEW How should an interviewer get ready for an interview? Familiarize yourself with whatever information is available about the general subject matter and about the people to be interviewed, their families, commuv nities, jobs, successes, and failures. Interviewers first get acquainted with the outline of interviewees” lives and then allow them to fill in the details. Read any published sources, such as family histories, histories of the town or institution, and histories of the events that the individual experienced, to understand and formulate questions. Back issues of newspapers and magazines, published and unpublished gene- alogies, and other sources likely to be found in the local history section of a library are natural beginnings for research. Some interviewees have deposited their papers in a library, although most still have their papers, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia in their closets, attics, and basements. Ask them to make these records available prior to the interview. Others bring relevant memoranda, letters, and photographs to the interview. When all else fails, ask interviewees to give brief descriptions of diemselves and to suggest what other sources you might consult. Ari especially instructive way to prepare for an interview is to read or listen to other oral histories. Investigate other interviews from your project or the tapes and transcripts deposited in a library. Techniques vary, even from interview to interview, depending on the interviewer’s expertise and the interviewee’s cooperation and loquaciousness. Analyzing different types of questions, and ways of asking them, will help you construct your own ques- tioning style. During the 19705, Former Members of Congress, Inc., inter- viewed more than 100 former senators and representatives and gave the tapes and transcripts to the Library of Congress. A number of interviewers participated, and their transcripts reveal a variety of styles and approaches: historians asked questions that fit a mostly biographical framework; political scientists asked organizational questions about seniority, staff, committee assignments, leadership, and other aspects of congressional group behavior.3 When preparing a budget, count on doing as many as ten hours of research for every hour of interview conducted. Usually, only the initial interview sessions require this much advance research. Subsequent interviews will build on the original research and require less preparation time. The cost of prepara tion decreases when several interviews can be conducted from a single invest- ment in prior research. CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS ls so much research really necessary? Yes. It is the only way to determine what questions to ask. The more an interviewer knows about the individual and the subject matter, the wow it is to build rapport and conduct the interview. Interviewees become impatient with interviewers whose questions show they do not know the subject matter. Research also helps an interviewer supply information that an thI’VlCWCC has forgotten. As they backtrack through their lives, few people remember names and dates accurately. An interview can come to a standstill while the interviewee gropes for a forgotten name (“that tall rnan, you know, what’s his name, the economist, who smoked a pipe”). If the interviewer can provide the name (“Do you mean John Kenneth Galbraith?”), the interviewee, with great relief, will continue as if uninterrupted. If you do not know it, promise to look up the name later to fill in the transcript. Many interViewees, especially older people, lack confidence in their memories and tenser View an-int'erv1ew as a test. Interviewers should try to put them at ease. Dates are also significant, since people often jumble the chronology or merge events that took place at different times. By interjecting “Didn’t that happen in 1960 rather than 1970?” the interviewer can help the interviewee get back on track. Interviewers need to be sufficiently prepared to know what to expect and what not to expect from an interview. If interviewees make claims that conflict with other accounts, encourage them to explain further. Interviewees may bring up some entirely new subject that was not part of the original research. Explore this new topic by saying, “I didn’t know about that. Can you tell me more about it?” Although interviewers work hard to prepare questions in advance, they must be willing to deviate from them sometimes to follow the interviewee’s detouts, which may provide valuable information. How many questions should be prepared for each interview? It is safer to have too many questions than too few. Some interviewees talk at great length in response to a single question. During a soliloquy, they may anticipate several questions on the interviewer’s list and discuss these issues without being prompted. Others answer briefly and need several follow—up questions to draw them out. Whenever Senate Majority Leader Mike Mans- field appeared on “Meet the Press,” the program’s interViewers prepared twice as many questions as for other guests because the senator habitually abbreviated his responses to “Yep” and “Nope.” If an interviewer has prepared more questions than time permits, another interview sessron would be in order. Avoid asking the type of question that elicits a brief answer, such as, “Yog grew up in Grand Rapids?” “Yes.” “And you went to public school there? DOING ORAL HISTORY “Yes, I did." Instead of simply verifying your research notes, ask, “What was Grand Rapids like when you were growing up there?” and, “Tell me about the schools you attended.” Transcripts showing a string of single-sentence answers indicate poor interviewing techniques. Oral historians seek broader, longer, and more interpretive answers. Do not ask more than one question at a time; most interviewees would address only one of them. Either the interviewer has to repeat the other half of the question later or it is simply forgotten in the flow of the narrative. How many times should one person be interviewed? Single-session oral histories are like “audio snapshots.” Depending on the objectives and budget of your project, try to conduct more than one interview with each person. It often takes more than one interview just to break the ice. Repeated visits establish an intimacy that encourages candidness. Both interviewer and interviewee need some time together to develop the rapport necessary to ask difficult questions and to give honest answers. One inter— viewee began his fourth interview session by saying, “Up till now I’ve been giving it to you sugar—coated,” and went on to discuss his most disagreeable professional relations. It took the first three interviews to gain his confidence before he lowered his guard. Interviewees do not necessarily hold things back deliberately; it takes time for anyone to remember all the relevant details. Most minds do not work in a precise and orderly manner, and most of us cannot call forth recollections in perfect chronological order, grouped together logically. Memory usually works by association. An interviewee may talk at length about President Harry Truman’s administration and seem to have completely exhausted the subject, until a later session when a question about Iohn F. Kennedy elicits the response, “Kennedy handled that differently than Truman.” The inter— viewee then recounts an aspect of the Truman years that had not come to mind earlier. Some interviewees just do not have much to say. They may suffer from “mike fright” and become tense. They may not have been very perceptive. Their memories may be clouded. One interviewee in a nursing home drifted off to sleep twice during his interview, awakening each time the interviewer began to pack up the equipment and continuing the interview as if uninter- rupted. There was no second session. Other interviewees will surprise you with their volubility, the depth of their recall, and their articulateness. In these cases, it is best to return for several sessions until the interviewer feels they have exhausted the subject matter. But beware of the lonely interviewee who seeks to prolong interview ses- sions unnecessarily. Some interviewees have few visitors or are not taken very CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS seriously by their families, and they revel in an audience. Take care to be sensitive to the needs of older interviewees, but remember that you are not a psychiatrist offering free and unlimited therapy sessrons. How long should an average interview last? Unless you are traveling and have a tight schedule that requires lengthier, even full-day sessions, plan each intervrew. sessron for no longer than txgo hours. Longer sessions often have a “narcotic” effect on the tnterv1ewee, w Io can become fatigued and distracted. The interVIewer Will also have troub e listening to what is being said. If prolonged sessrons are necessary, arrange . . 4 for several breaks to give both parties a rest. SETTING UP THE INTERVIEW Who should be interviewed first? ‘Logically, you should start with the oldest and the most significant la ers in the events or community that you are pursuing. For anyr number of rfasdns some people develop more influence, respect, and standing with an organiza: tion, profession, or community. A significant player may have been the one who held a critical post, had a warm and caring personality or served as the institution’s unofficial historian and record-keeper. If interviewed early in the process, they can help identify and locate other potential interviewees and help persuade them to be interviewed. Called the “gatekeepers” by oral histo- rians, their assistance is often indispensable. The gatekeeper may have been a longtime employee who still communicates with former colleagues or a survwing spouse, other relative, or close friend of a key figure in the eirents Others often wait until the gatekeeper has sanctioned the interviews While trying to interview Benjamin V. Cohen and Thomas G. Corcoran the “Gold Dust Twms” who shaped much New Deal legislation, I received rio res onse to my letters and phone calls to Corcoran. But the day after I interviiewed Cohen, Coreoran’s secretary scheduled an appointment indicatin that I h d passed inspection. a g a Always keep actuarial realities in mind. Planning an oral history project can be so time-consuming that when a project is ready to begin interviewin the best prospective interviewees may either have died or become too ill tgd give a useful interview. Potential interviewees should be grouped accordin to age, Significance to the theme of the project, and availability in terms ogf time and location. Save for a later stage of the project those whodare voun er more peripheral, and further away. Travel constraints, however frequefitl1 require that interviewees living in a particular location be bunched togetheii, Remember also the practical journalism advice of starting with those “who are-most likely to cooperate.” Less cooperative subjects require repeated invitations and patient persuasion. In the end, they may agree to be inter- viewed only to keep others whom they opposed, distrusted or held in con- tempt from monopolizing the historical record.5 a How do you locate potential interviewees? The oral historian has to play detective. Word-of-mouth referrals will unearth many potential interviewees, but quite often oral historians have to hunt for CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS / their subjects. If interviewing for a biography, the interviewer who has read the subject’s papers will know which people corresponded with the subject and may have found return addresses on their correspondence. Phone books may identify people who have moved. (Many phone directories around the nation have been compiled on CD—ROM for ready retrieval.) Certain individ- uals within a family or an organization make a point of keeping in contact with other family members, neighbors, and colleagues and can provide current addresses and telephone numbers. Various professions also maintain directov' ries of their members, such as the MartindaleAHubbell guide for lawyers. Other associations and corporations publish newsletters that reach current and re- tired employees and can carry stories and advertisements about an oral history project. Newspaper advertisements may also locate potential interviewees, but indiscriminate calls for volunteers may inundate the interviewer with an unmanageable number of willing interviewees and not necessarily identify those who can make the most valuable contributions" What is the best way to initiate contact with interviewees? By letter or phone call, state the purpose of the interview and the nature of the project. Explain what will happen to the tapes and transcripts, and describe the legal release that the interviewee will be asked to sign. Follow up any phone conversations with a letter to establish a record for your own files. It t for older interviewees to have your name, address, is especially importan phone number, the purposes of the interview, and the scheduled date, in writin . Soriiietimes the interviewer plans a preliminary meeting, perhaps over t acquainted with the interviewee and to get a better idea of the major subjects that will be discussed during the actual interviews. Being able to have preliminary meetings clearly depends on the time available, for both the intervieWer and interviewee, and the project’s budget. In some projects, preinterview sessions are discouraged, to avoid losing the spontaneity and candidness of unrehearsed questioning. The television interviewer Brian Lamb complains of having “ruined” some of his inter- views by asking questions before the cameras were tutned on, since a uestion asked the second time rarely elicits as fully satisfying a response as it did the first time. Schedule the interview at the interviewee’s convenience, and make sure you arrive on time. With more prominent interviewees, scheduling can pose problems, especially if the interviewer must travel any distance to the inter- view. Reiterate to the interviewee the purpose of the project, and be sure to mention your difficulty and expense in arranging it. When planning to go to the interviewee’s home or office, ask directions on how to get there. Nothing lunch, to ge DOING ORAL HISTORY starts an interview more disagreeably than an interviewer arriving late and tense after a frantic search for the right address. Interviewers are guests and should act accordingly. Interviews can easily go awry if the interviewer arrives late, smokes, chews. gum, dresses inappropriately, or otherwise offends the 1nterv1ewee’s sensibilities. CONDUCTING THE INTERVIEW Where should you position the tape recorder? Place the tape recorder where the interviewer can easily see it and periodically check its functioning, but where it is out of the interviewee‘s direct line of vision, to keep it from becoming a distraction. Equipment sometimes makes people nervous, but after a few minutes most will ignore the tape recorder if it is not right in front of them. The microphone should be situated near the interviewee, preferably pinned on as a lavaliere microphone. Electrical outlets, or their absence, may also determine the position of the recorder. Either use rechargeable battery packs or bring batteries in case there are no convenient outlets or the original batteries wear down. Tape recorders should never be completely concealed, however, since hidden recording is antithetical to the trust and confidence on which oral history depends. Surreptitious recording is unethical, and in most states illegal. Become familiar with your equipment, both the recorder and the micro- phones. Failure to test equipment may cause the entire interview to be lost or so poorly recorded that it is difficult to transcribe. Every interviewer should try transcribing a tape at least once to grasp the critical necessity of good sound quality. Most interviewers try to set up their equipment in a quiet place where the interview will not be interrupted by children, inquiring spouses, secre- taries, ringing phones, open windows, street traffic, air conditioners, loud clocks, and the like. Interviewees will want to be good hosts, but clinking coffee cups and plates, ice twirling in drinks, and other extraneous noises will all be picked up on the tape. The interviewee may be unperturbed by this everyday commotion, but it will distract the interviewer and make the tape more difficult to use for transcribing, editing, and research purposes. By contrast, folklorists, linguists, and anthropologists will often try to capture the “sound environment” of the interview, including ambient sounds, from church bells to ocean waves. Some noises are undesirable for any purposes. An interviewer once recorded at a table under a bird cage, not noticing the sound until he played back the tape and found that “noises of the parakeet scratching in his cage all but drowned out the interviewee”? DOING ORAL HISTORY What if the tape runs out while the interviewee is speaking? Keep an eye on the recorder. Some tape recorders have signals that warn when the tape is about to run out. As the tape comes close to the end take advantage of the interviewees next pause and ask to stop while you change the tape. Always keep a new tape nearby, and remember that there is no third Side to a tape! When turning the tape over, let it run a few seconds lon enough to get past the “leader.” ‘ g Make a mental note of the subject being discussed when the tape ran out. Interviewees sometimes have trouble picking up the thread. even after a short plausc, arid will need some prompting from the interviewer: “You were saying tiat . . ." Should questions be arranged Chronologically or topically? The scheme of interviewing depends on the goals of the project. For some projects. the entire life story of the interviewee will be relevant for other pmjects, the focus will be on the events in which the interviewee participated for instance. Andrew Young might be interviewed for his entire life for his tenure as United Nations ambassador. or for his role in the civil rights movement. Biographical interviews usuallv proceed chronologically. If the focus of. a project is on an event, then thevquestions will be more topical. lumping right into the main question is not the best approach. Avoid making the first question too abrupt and confrontational; instead build u to the climactic questions by first establishing the historical setting and makinp the interviewee more comfortable with the process. People tend to recafi things chronologically. Set the stage with general questions, and then follow With more specific. pointed questions. Strictly topical questions mav elicit responses that lack depth and context. Topical questions. however can‘follow quite appropriately within a chronological framework. 1 Are open—ended questions preferable to specific questions? Ideally, interviewers should mix the two tvpes ofquestion. The first uestions should be openAended, such as. “Please tell me about vour childhoiid ” S e- cihc questions can follow: “What schools did you attend?” Starting with tpoo specmc a question gives the interviewer too much control of the interview Inten'lewers should let interviewees explain what thev think is most significant before beginning to narrow the questions. “The best oral history is a quasi- monologue on the part of the interviewee," the oral historian Sherna Gluck has observed. “which is encouraged by approving nods. appreciative smiles, CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS and enraptured listening and stimulated by understanding comments and intelligent questions?“ Use open—ended questions to allow interviewees to volunteer their own accounts, to speculate on matters, and to have enough time to include all of the material they think relevant to the subject. Use more specific questions to elicit factual information, often in response to something the interviewee has mentioned while answering an open-ended question. Political reporters and courtroom attorneys use this type of mixed questioning in an approach that has been called “funnel interviewing.” Their search begins with general questions and then constantly narrows until the subject has difficulty not answering the final, more specific questions. Oral history is a much less adversarial means of interviewing, but the funnel approach remains useful when the subject is controversial.9 In framing an openvended question, the oral historian Charles Morrissey stulates that the twosentence format often works best. The first sentence should state the problem; the second poses the question: “The records show you were a leader in establishing the zoning laws that shaped this town. Why were zoning laws your objectives?” There are a number of possible follow- up questions: “How did these laws specifically affect your neighborhood?” “What complaints were raised about these laws?” “How effective would you judge these laws to have been?” “Looking back from today, what would you have done differently?” Questions also might relate to specific zoning inci— dents drawn from newspaper clippings. For such a topic, a map can serve as a good visual prompter during the interview and as appendix material for the transcript.‘0 Keep in mind that interviewers are not restricted to asking questions. Statements of fact, concise restatements of what the interviewee has said, brief observations and comments can stimulate responses from the interviewee as well as inject more spontaneity into the discussion. Mixing occasional com- ments among the questions provides some relief and can prevent the interview from sounding too much like a cross-examination. But interviewers should always use such interjections in moderation to avoid skewing the content of the interview with their own opinions. The use ofopenrended questions has also been cited as a means of “empow- cring” interviewees—that is, by encouraging interviewees to relate and to interpret their own stories, such questions shift the balance of power from the interviewer to the interviewee. Those who talk of empowerment view the interviewee as an “informant” and the interviewer as a “reporter.” The interviewer may be asking the questions, but the interviewee is actively shaping the course of the interview rather than responding passively. These notions have raised the consciousness especially of those sociologists. an- thropologists, and linguists who do not ideiitiiirfor create fictional identities for—their oral sources, and of interviewers who work outside their own DOENG ORAL HISTORY cultures and struggle not to impose their cultural assumptions on the people they observe and interview.“ Can the framing of a question distort the answer? Pollsters say that if you can tell from what position a question is being asked then the question is loaded. “Do you support a balanced budget amendmeni to end waste and fraud in the government?” is loaded. “Do you support a balanced budget amendment?” is neutral. Journalists often ask leading and manipulative questions; the preface “Wouldn’t you say . . .” is designed to produce a response that fits a particular hypothesis. Many politicians have regretted letting a reporter put words into their mouths wiih such questions Researchers working on a Specific book or article similarly ask questions to fill holes in their evidence, usually having in mind the answer that they hope to. hear. The danger ofthis approach is that interviewees want to please and will pick up the clues—from the type ofquestion asked to the tone of voice used—was to what type of an answer they think the interviewer wants to hear. The result is the opposite of the way an oral history should pr0ceed.12 Start with open—ended questions, allow the interviewee to talk broadly ranging as far and wide as possible Listen and make notes as the interviewer: speaks, but do not interrupt. When it is clear that the person has exhausted the subject and stopped, go back and ask specific follow-up questions clarify points of confusion or contradiction, and pursue details. l i What if the answers are perfunctory? Short. answers may be a sign that an interviewer is asking too many specific questions and not enough open-ended “how” and “why” questioris. Inter- viewees are not always sure of how much detail interviewers want. They may give answers that are to the point but short, unrevealing, and unreflective. Never be satisfied with brief answers, and follow up with more detailed questions to draw the interviewee out. ‘ Short answers may also indicate that the interviewer has been too quick to jump in with the next question. It requires some discipline to remain silent alter asking a question, and to remain so until absolutely certain that the interviewee has finished answering. Try not to speak immediately after the interv1ewee stops, since it may just be a pause for a breath of air or for gathering additional thoughts. Silence indicates that an interviewer expects more. Ten seconds can seem excruciatingly long if neither party is speaking but can encourage the interviewee to give a more detailed response.13 Sometimes answers are perfunctory simply because the interviewer has not engaged the interviewee‘s interest. Try varying the types of questions and the CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS subjects they cover. Studs Terkel has described his interview of the 90-year- old philosopher Bertrand Russell. Allotted only half an hour, Terkel knew he would be escorted out promptly when his time was up. His first theoretical question elicited only a short reply. He switched to more provocative ques— tions and noted that as Russell became engaged, his answers grew longer. With time running out, Terkel sought “the home run question.” “Lord Rus- sell,” he asked, “what is the world you envision?” Russell’s response summa- rized his hopes and frustrations, ending with a touch of weariness. Although he might have ended there, Terkel tried for “a parting shot.” “You liked Shelley when you were young, in your formative years," he said. “Do you still feel the same way?” That charming, personal question showed that the interviewer knew his subject and had come well prepared (although it might have been more effective if he had asked it earlier in the interview). The interview succeeded because the fully engaged interviewer was constantly evaluating his interviewee’s responses and changing gears to provoke more stimulating responses. Terkel reminds us that every interviewer ought to be looking for the “home run question.”” How should you deal with an uncooperative interviewee? A former secretary of state once greeted an interviewer by pointing out that he had given his papers to an archives so that historians would not bother him. Anyone who expected him to remember and comment on events that happened years ago “must live in the realm of the ridiculous." The interviewer was well aware of his subject’s reputed temperament and had come with a plan. He knew that the secretary retained a strong attachment to his home state, and although the interview dealt with foreign policy, the interviewer asked about the foreign policy concerns of people in this town or that. The questions appealed to the secretary’s interests, and he began to speak at length, well beyond the mandated time for the interview. For many personal reasons, ranging from their state of health to their unhappiness over the way their lives and careers developed, some people will be uncooperative interviewees. Perhaps they disliked or resented the individual whom the interviewer is researching. They may not like “dredging up the past.” By preparing as thoroughly as possible for an interview in advance, interviewers should be able to anticipate some of the causes of such behavior and to develop strategies for dealing with them. if one line of questioning elicits bitterness, shift to another approach. Seck areas that the interviewee enjoys talking about before raising the disagreeable questions. Be prepared to justify the need to “stir up those old ashes" after so many years and to explain why scholars are seeking answers to these questions. Some interviewees will answer cvasively. They may be testing the inter- DOING ORAL HISTORY viewer’s knowledge. If the interviewer allows them to respond incompletely or evasively, however, they will continue to do so. Following up with more specific questions on the same subject, thereby indicating that the answers were insufficient, may elicit more complete or informative responses. If this tack does not work, then clearly and respectfully point out that the interviewee seems to be less than forthcoming. Perhaps the interviewee will make some explanation or finally give a fuller response. If not, the interview should be ended. How personal should an interviewer get? The degree to which an interview explores personal matters is something that each interviewer and interviewee will have to work out between themselves. Like the media, historians increasingly want to know about the private side of public figures. The feminist notion that “the personal is political” has also contributed to the merging of the public and personal spheres in historical analysis. Whether individual interviewees will answer personal questions is another matter. Different people have different concepts of what is personal. When Ronald Steel was interviewing Walter Lippmann for his biography, Lippmann volun- teered to cooperate so long as Steel did not ask anything personal. Steel soon learned that Lippmann defined the word quite broadly. Once when Steel asked him what his father had done for a living, Lippmann stared at him silently and then replied, “I wouldn’t want you to make a novel out of this.” (Lippmann was not proud that his family’s fortune rested on rents from tenement houses.)15 In fact, Lippmann‘s lawyer, Louis Auchincloss, did turn a major turning point of Lippmann’s private life into a novel, The House of the Prophet (1980), in which the protagonist complains: “Biography is a whole new ball game. it is possible now, even in the lifetimes of our very greatest men, to persuade their friends and acquaintances to record on tape their most intimate impressions of these individuals. All vou have to do is wave in their faces the sacred banner of history.“16 1 How should you bring up subjects that may be embarrassing? Having gone to great lengths to put interviewees at ease and to establish rapport, it is often hard to confront them with embarrassing questions. The sociologist Iohn Gwaltney, author of Drylongso (1993), an oral history of Newark’s inner-city blacks, once chided members of the Oral Historv Assticiaw tion for often being too polite and discreet “to ask the embarrassing question.” He argued that with some gentle and persistent prodding, interviewees will talk about difficult subjects. Playing tapes to demonstrate his point, Gwaltnev CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS showed that his questions were humorous and playful, but unrelenting. Being blind, Gwaltney also had the advantage of his interviewees wanting him to understand them; they would go on at length and punctuate their responses with, “Don’t you see?" One way to bring up difficult or embarrassing issues is to quote someone else. During the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter administrations, the National Archives maintained an oflice near the White House where they interviewed officials as they left the administration, many of them involuntarily and under some cloud. The interviewees were often agitated and unnerved over their experience and not happy to talk about it. Conducting preliminary interviews for the Ford and Carter presidential libraries, the Archives interviewer had to ask some embarrassing questions but tried to connect them with published sources: “The Washington Post reported that you left office because of such and such. Was this a fair assessment?” Since the matter was part of the public record, and the interviewees were being asked to give their own side of the story, they invariably offered their own defense. Having made the focus the newspaper versus the interviewee (rather than the interviewer versus the interviewee), the interviewer needed to be sure to follow up with questions about the subject’s self-defense, its inconsistencies, and its contradictions with other accounts. When confronted with embarrassing subjects, an interviewee's first re- sponse may be brief, defensive, inconclusive. The interviewer should return to the topic later in the interview. The more the interviewee attempts to explain, offers more details, and strains to make the interviewer understand, the more candid—and less cannedithe responses become. This approach takes time; once again, multiple interview sessions are important. Some interviewees stipulate before an interview that there are certain sub: jects they will not discuss. Although it is possible to allude to such topics during the interview, the interviewees may break their own rules and venture into the forbidden areas themselves. Ultimately oral historians must accede to an interviewee‘s request. It is legitimate, however, to note the interviewee’s demand in the files for that interview, thereby explaining to future users why certain subjects were not addressed. Difficult, embarrassing, or confrontational topics should be deferred until later in the interview, after the interviewer has established some rapport. While working on a history of an abortive plan to use nuclear weapons to dredge a harbor in Alaska, an oral historian arranged to interview the crusty nuclear physicist Edward Teller. Time was limited, and Teller arrived late. Rather than ask his “warm-up” questions, the interviewer decided to jump right in with an opening question about the most controversial part ofTeller‘s involvement with the project. “This interview is over,” snapped Teller as he got up and left. To appear interested and sympathetic, an interviewer does not have to act DOENG ORAL HISTORY obsequiously. If a point of disagreement is reached with an interviewee, one solution is to try to restate the interviewee’s point of view. The interviewee will usually respond by further defining the position, and the dialogue is thus extended rather than terminated. Finally, keep in mind Oscar Wilde‘s observation that “questions are never indiscreet. Answers sometimes are.”17 What if the interviewee asks that the tape recorder be turned off? An oral history is not a journalistic interview, so there is little to be gained by hearing a story “off the record.” Politely but firmly, interviewers should decline to interrupt the interview. Explain that the tape can remain closed until the interviewee is ready to release it, and that the transcripts can be edited. At times, however, interviewees may want to stop the tape to explain their hesitancy about answering a question or to ask the interviewer’s advice about the propriety of discussing a person or issue. Interviewers can halt both the interview and the tape to hear their problems, counsel them, and offer some reassurance before resuming the taping. How can interviewers get beyond stories that have been “rehearsed” through frequently retelling? Oral historians are frequently encouraged to interview the favorite storyteller and unofi‘icial local historian. These individuals often have wonderful stories that may have folklore value, and they will tell their stories regardless of how relevant they are to the interviewer’s questions. To a lesser degree, everyone tells stories about past experiences, to relive glory days, celebrate shared experiences, or make comparisons with the present. Each telling of the story embeds it all the firmer in the mind. Columbia has an interview with Ferdi- nand Pecora about the highly publicized investigation he conducted during the 19305 of Wall Street banking and stock market malpractice. Although he gave the interview 40 years after the events took place, his memory was remarkable for its detail and precision. But Pecora’s family pointed out that he had been telling these stories for years, and even after the interview was still telling them on his deathbed to the hospital nurses.18 Although important for memory retention, rehearsal can create stumbling blocks for interviewers. Every telling ofa story embellishes it, thereby moving it further away from reality. Events are telescoped, chronology tightened, order rearranged and edited, drama or humor heightened. Rehearsed stories tend to omit negative events and concentrate on triumphs. Interviewees have not necessarily forgotten old wounds and mistakes. When questioned, they can recall past defeats, even if they do not always feel comfortable talking CONDUCTING INTERVI EVVS about them. By the time the oral historian asks the question, the answer may simply be the oft-told story. The best defense against a well-rehearsed story is a well-prepared inter- viewer who can spot inaccuracies and gently challenge inconsistencies. But interviewees may have told their stories so often that they cannot remember it any other way. Some interviewees prime themselves for the interview, and others have stories that they will tell anyone under any circumstances. If the interviewer tries to cut them off, they may become confused or, more likely, will simply wait for another occasion to insert the stories in the dialogue. Since these stories have special meaning to the interviewee, it is usually worth giving them time to tell their set speeches. (You will probably find it impossible to stop them.) After the supply is finally exhausted, try to ask questions that will lead down less familiar paths.19 Rehearsing a story, through its retelling over the years, also serves as a form of self-interpretation. People not only remember their past but try to make sense of it, rationalizing it so they can live with it. An interview with a divorced couple will probably elicit two very different versions of the marriage and why it ended. Defeated politicians have similarly reconstructed their pasts. Interviewers need to ask these interviewees to stop and think about what they have said. Not all stories have been rehearsed mentally or anecdotally. Questions may cause interviewees to recall events long buried in their memories. They often express amazement at their recall of seemingly forgotten memories, then recount them in explicit detail and at surprising length. How can an interviewer assist an interviewee’s ability to recall? An interviewee once commented that he felt as if his memory was on trial. Recognizing that most people do not readily remember names and dates, interviewers attempt to become familiar with the major players in the inter- viewee’s life and with its basic chronology, not only to keep the interviews moving but to put the interviewee’s mind at ease. Oral historians have simi- larly explored the use of photographs and familiar artifacts to trigger recall. Family photo albums, newspaper clippings, and letters have all served as tools for unearthing otherwise forgotten information. Some interviewers have even experimented with the sense of smell, to see what memories different smells elicit.20 Looking through family photographs not only prompts commentary from the interviewee but can provide illustrations for the interviewer’s publications. The historian Pete Daniel traveled down the Mississippi River to interview people in the towns along the way, recording their recollections of the great flood of 1927 fifty years after the event. The photograph albums that many DOING ORAL HISTORY interviewees brought out helped sharpen their memories and provided stun- ning illustrations for his book, Deep'ii as It Come (1977). By contrast, Andrea Hammer began her research with a set of the New Deal’s Farm Security Agency photographs taken in southern Maryland between 1935 and 1943. During the l980s Hammer located many of the subjects who still lived in that region and who could talk about the people and places in the photos. Her object was to reconstruct the social context of the photographs, an exercise that demonstrated again that photographs can be misleading, and misinterpreted, without help from those who were there.21 Do differences in rare, gender, or age between the interviewer and the interviewee make any difference in the interview? Interviewees take the measure of interviewers, make assumptions about what they will want to ask, and to some degree try to please them by telling what they want to hear. A study of the Federal Writers Project interviews with former slaves, conducted in the 1930s, discovered that an elderly black woman was interviewed twice, once by a white woman and again by a black man. She gave starkly different accounts of her memories of slavery, painting a relatively benign account for the white woman and a much harsher account for the black man. She may well have spoken even more differently to another black woman.22 Differences in age, race, gender, and ethnicity may influence both the questions asked and the responses elicited. There are no set prescriptions to overcome such differences. Some may want to match interviewers closely with interviewees, but men and women of different races and ethnicitv should be able to interview each other. In seeking to make interviewees feel comfort- able, interviewers might reveal a little of themselves—rwhere they live, where they went to school, where they work, what their families do—to establish points of commonality that might cut across some of the barriers between them. Even without any corrunon reference, the interviewer can compensate by having thoroughly researched the subject and being familiar with names, dates, and events long past. A welleprepared interviewer becomes, for the duration of the interview, the contemporary of the interviewee. “Oh, do you know about him?” the interviewee will say. Or, “I haven’t thought about that in years.” During the interview, older people seem younger and more ani- mated as they relive the past with a sympathetic listener. The Oral History Associations’s principles and standards encourage inter- viewers to work to achieve a balance between the objectives of the project and the perspec- tives ofthe interviewees. They should be sensitive to the div ersirv of social and CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS cultural experiences, and to the implications of race, gender, class, ethnicity, age, religion, and sexual orientation. They should encourage interviewees to respond in their own style and language, and to address issues that reflect their concerns. Interviewers should fully explore all appropriate areas of inquiry with the interviewee and not be satisfied with superficial responses.23 Are there any differences between interviewing the famous and inter- viewing average individuals? The difference lies largely in the interviewee‘s previous experience of being interviewed by the media. The average person has not been interviewed and may initially feel intimidated by the tape recorder and microphone. For the more prominent interviewee, the interviewer’s problem will be to draw a distinction between an oral history and a newspaper interview. Interviewees must recognize that what they say will not appear on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper or on the evening news, a revelation that may actually disappoint some of them but that for the most part enables them to speak candidly. They can leave a complete record but keep it confidential so that it will not damage their careers. Professional people can also prove difficult to interview. Lawyers, for in— stance, have been trained not to volunteer information. Even worse are law professors, who seem to be judging questions to see how much the inter- viewer already knows. If prepared and able to ask probing follow-up ques- tions, interviewers can earn their respect and perhaps a little more of their cooperation. Business executives may need some coaxing to think of the interview as something other than a promotional device. Most professional people and all politicians have been interviewed before as part of their jobs. They are used to responding to questions, and they have developed certain patterns of response. As a result, their answers may be superficial and pack- aged, and it can be hard to break through their veneer. Some oral histories with politicians sound more like radio scripts than candid interviews. When interviewing within an organization or a group of people who participated in a common event, it is just as important to interview the “little fish” as the “big fish.” Those on the middle or lower tiers of any hierarchy usually have more time to do interviews, a broader perspective on events, and less ego invested in the operation. Those at the top may be too preoccupied and perhaps too self-centered to provide much new information. If they are still in power, those at the top are often more cautious in responding and may give little more than a press release. Interviewing at the periphery provides information that makes it easier to interview those at the center. Conversely, interviewing the top people early in the project reassures anxious subordinates that management sanctions the project. Interviewers have to take advantage of whatever scheduling opportunities they encounter and develop their own DOING ORAL HISTORY tactics in determining which individuals in any group to interview, how many, and in what order.24 Is there more advantage to being an “insider” or an "outsider" as an interviewer? Sometimes you have an advantage if you are part of the same organization as the interviewees. Even if years younger than the interviewees, you will know the names of their contemporaries and will probably have heard many of the stories and much of the gossip, so you can be trusted as a colleague. If you come from outside the group being interviewed, you have to research all the harder to be sure to know the basic organizational facts and nuances. In building rapport, you do not want to sound like an outsider. At the same time, there are disadvantages to “intimate” as opposed to “clinical” interviewing. An interviewer from within the same group often takes too much for granted and may neither ask for explanations not follow up with questions about matters that seem to be common knowledge to the interviewer but are obscure to outsiders. Moreover, interviewees sometimes perceive the inside interviewer as a partisan or player in the events and may feel less uncomfortable discussing certain people or issues with someone from outside their organization or community. Whether an insider or an outsider, you do not want to look like a “know- it-all.” The purpose of interviewing is to collect and record for the first time what other people know, thought, and perceived. An interviewee who gathers that the interviewer is thoroughly versed in the subject may not see much point in going into detail. “You know what that is, right?” they may say, then skip the explanation. You may indeed know what that is, but someone reading the transcript years hence may not have a clue. The best strategy is to play student to the interviewee as teacher. You have done the homework but want to know more, so you ask questions like: “Why was that?” “I don’t understand; can you explain that to me?” “I‘ve always wondered why that was.” Such questions cause intcwiewees to want to make you understand the situation the way they understood it, and to see it the way they saw it. Never be afraid to admit that you did not understand what an interviewee meant. Some interviewers prepare elaborate questions and then never follow up on them. If the firsr responses are glib, short, or shallow, press the interviewee further on the same subject until you are sure the subject has been exhausted. Should interviewers use a questionnaire? When dealing with a group that has a common identity or was involved in a conunon event or organization, be sure to direct the same core questions to CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS everyone. Especially ifdifferent interviewers are working for the same project, you should agree on a common list of themes and certain questions for all to ask. But individual interviewees have had their own unique experiences that no questionnaire can anticipate. You must be willing to deviate from the prepared questions whenever something unexpected and interesting develops. Oral history, after all, addresses neglected areas of knowledge. The best items uncovered are often subjects that you were not prepared to ask questions about and perhaps had read norhing about in your research. A good inter- viewer hears an unexpected statement and follows up with additional ques- tions. Behaviorists, who prefer questionnaires that can be coded and quantified, often bemoan the “subjective” nature of oral history. But oral historians deal with individual memory and perception, which are hard to squeeze into a structured format. Cari follow-up questions be prepared in advance? Follow-up questions require both prior research and spontaneity. A thor- oughly prepared interviewer will sense when the interviewee is being incom- plete and will press for a fuller discussion. Research also helps you spot new information or information that conflicts with other accounts. “I didn’t know that, can you tell me more about it?" can be the best followrup question, since it encourages the interviewee to devote more attention to the issue and provide more details. Interviewees are often surprised when an interviewer seems to care about a particular subject and would not have mentioned it more than in passing if interest had not been expressed. The most important skill in asking questions is being able to listen carefully to what interviewees are saying. Those who study listening have concluded that people generally hear only a small portion of what is said to them, a phenomenon that every parent and teacher can confirm. Even in an interview situationtso much more focused than a normal conversationithe inter- viewer is keeping an eye on the tape recorder, concentrating on choosing the next question to be asked, and growing fatigued and distracted as time elapses. Listening to a tape of one ofhis interviews, Theodore Rosengarten, the author of All God's Dangers: The Life of Note Shaw (1974), realized that he had “set out to question, not to listen.” Thinking ahead from question to question, he had allowed the tape recorder to listen for him. “Let the machine record,“ he admonished, “and you listen!”25 Training themselves to remain alert saves interviewers from the embar— rassing position of asking a question that the interviewee has already an- swered—a clear signal that the interviewer has not been paying attention? and helps them flag the unexpected revelations that deserve to be followed DOING ORAL HISTORY up. In listening to the tapes after their interviews, even the most experienced interviewers hear things that eluded them during the interview. These areas can be pursued in subsequent interviews, but not as spontaneously as when they first arose.26 How should interviewers react to statements with which they strongly disagree? The hardest part of listening is having to pay attention to ideas and informa— tion with which you differ. You may be inclined to interrupt and argue, but you need to hear the interviewee our fully before confronting areas of disagreement. Challenge answers that seem misleading, and pursue responses that seem mistaken. Interviewees may misspeak or poorly express themselves; sometimes they are misinformed or just wrong. But they may also possess a more accurate version of events than the interviewer has seen in other sources and, given the opportunity, may be able to present their version convinc- ingly.” Oral history collects the interviewee’s recollections and opinions, not the interviewer’s. Interviewers are not responsible for converting interviewees to any true faith, nor do they need to demonstrate that they are purer than the people they are interviewing. A true test of both the interviewer and the oral history project is whether they conducted interviews with representatives of all sides of an issue, including those whom they considered less than admirable. But what if the interviewer suspects that an interviewee is lying or shading the truth? Never be too quick to assume that an interviewee is wrong or lying. Your objective is to record the story from the interviewec’s point of view, even if that includes some exaggerated claims or boasting. You need not embrace totally whatever the interviewee is saying. Try to draw interviewees out further on any dubious assertions. Return to troublesome issues at different points during the interview, as a means of prodding interviewees into de- fending or refuting their previous statements. Do not hesitate to cite contrary evidence in newspaper accounts and other sources. Conflicting information can be attached as an appendix to the transcripts, for future researchers to consider. (First, however, be sure to alert the interviewee to the added material.)28 There is always the possibility that an interviewee is lying to him or herself. The interviewee may have consciously or subconsciously distorted memories of an unpleasant past. In Germany and Italy, oral historians have encountered CONDUCTING INTERV’IEW’S a mass amnesia about fascism and the Holocaust.29 Some people dramatically change their positions but convince themselves of their consistency and cor- rectness. The oral history interview, usually taking place years after the events occurred, can have a cathartic effect that allows some interviewees to confront painful, long-buried memories. In such cases, the interview serves as therapy as well as to set the record straight. ' But even a psychiatrist would have trouble getting some interviewees to confront the past honestly. The lie sometimes takes on a mythic significance of its own, and the interview may become valuable not for the story’s accuracv but as a means of analyzing the roots of its distortion and measuring ah idealized self against less favorable perceptions. Should an interviewer pay any attention to the interviewee’s “body Ian—r guage”? Even interviews that are not being videotaped have a visual component. Sitting in close proximity, interviewers and interviewees communicate non- verbally through facial expressions and body movement. Always focus your game fully on the interviewee. Looking around the room, staring into space, examining your nails, suggests that you are not paying attention, just as frowning indicates disagreement or disbelief. Interviewees will either inter- pret such behavior as rudeness or, fearing that they are boring you, begin abbreviating their answers. Except for glancing periodically at the tape rew corder or looking over photographs and other items relating to the interview, maintain eye contact diligently throughout the interview. A smile or a nod signals that you got the point and encourages the interviewee to keep talking. Quiet signals are preferable to verbal interruptions (“oh, yes,” “uh-hmmm,” “you don’t say”), which sound foolish on the tape and clutter the transcript. Interviewees also send nonverbal cues. A person leaning toward the inter- viewer and pointing a finger projects an aggressive, take-charge attitude; sitting back with crossed legs and arms and leaning away suggests a closed, self-protected attitude. Body language may indicate nervousness about the interview, and topics that make interviewees particularly uncomfortable may cause them to shift in their seats, drum their fingers on a table, and engage in other such noticeable behavior. Some interviewees glance at the interviewer to see how an answer has registered. Amelia Fry reported that when she interviewed the former California senator William F. Knowland for a life history, he never looked at her but stared fixedly at the ceiling. “as if he was answering to a higher authority.” It later became evident that Knowland was undergoing a crisis in his personal life and found it distressing to reflect on his past. This crisis caused him to commit suicide before she could conduct another interviews” DOING ORAL HISTORY In another extreme—but still instructivewcase, an oral historian who con- ducted a series of interviews with prisoners at the state penitentiary detected that the inmates had “a great deal of practice at perfecting their intentionally deceptive statements." He identified such nonverbal cues as tapping a cigarette and loss ofeye contact during specific replies as signals that a statement might be deceptive.31 Sounds also play a part in nonverbal communication. Voice pitch, hesita- tion, emphasis, sarcasm, and muttering of asides provide indications of atti— tude. When people become emotional, they tend to talk faster and raise their voices. Interviewers need to catch these nonverbal cues, since they are almost impossible to transcribe. A sarcastic inflection, for instance, can completely change the meaning ofa sentence. The interviewer might point out a sarcastic response and ask the interviewee to explain the sarcasm. Is there a role in oral history for what social scientists call “continuing observation?” Oral historians have never shared the interest of social scientists in observation as part of the interviewing process. Historians tend to isolate interviewees from their environment and to put them in a quiet place where they will not be interrupted during the interview, whereas in other disciplines subjects are examined in their natural setting. Anthropologists, for instance, live in communities to record their day-to-day observations along with their subjects’ testimony. Richard Fenno has encouraged political scientists to collect data by “inter- active observation,” by which he means “following politicians around and talking with them as they go about their work.” Fenno accompanied politi- cians through their home districts, through elections, and through their legislative service: Much of what you see, therefore, is dictated by what they do and say. IF something is important to them, it becomes important to you. Their view of the world is as important as your view of the world. You impose some research questions on them; they impose some research questions on you. That interac- tion has its costs—most notably in a considerable loss of control over the research process. It also has benefits. It brings you especially close to your data.32 Fenno’s prescription describes what many social sciences consider effective fieldwork. Although oral historians often travel to the area where their inter- viewees live and are interested in their environment, participatory observation has not been a major component of the oral history interview. Oral historians frequently interview those who have retired and live in difl'erent communities CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS M from where they spent their careers. Observing current daily routines would not offer many clues about the past that oral historians seek to capture on tape. Sometimes, however, interviewees want to show inten’iewers buildings and other sites that played an important part in their past. Oral historians should take advantage of such offers and visit the sites,_bringing along their tape recorders, cameras, and possibly video cameras to illustrate and supple- ment the interviews.33 CONCLUDING THE INTERVIEW What's the best way to conclude an interview? Look for a natural “wrap-up” question, something that causes interviewees to reflect on their lives, to compare recent events with their earlier years, to draw conclusions about major events, or to look ahead to the future. Ask the inten'iewec whether there are any other issues that could be discussed. Occa— sionally, an interviewee has anticipated a question that the interviewer did not raise. The interview itself may have triggered memories of long-forgotten people and events that the interviewer had not researched. Encourage inter- viewees to put whatever they consider important into the record. At the conclusion of the interview, remind the interviewee of how the tapes will be processed and where the tapes and transcripts will be deposited. Explain what their role will be in editing the transcript and in signing the deed of gift. Sometimes the interviewee is asked to sign a tape release immedi- ately after completing the taping session and another release later approving the transcript; other times no release is signed until the interviewee has reviewed the transcript. The timing depends on how quickly a transcript can be produced and on whether the interviewee is likely to request that the interview be restricted. It is Customary to present copies ofthe tape or transcript to the interviewee and to sometimes make additional copies for family members. If the object of the interview is an article or book, try to give a copy to the interviewee. Plan to invite interviewees to exhibit openings or other public presentations based on the interviews. You cannot simply walk out the door with someone’s life story, their candid reflections, and sometimes their extremely personal observations. Interviews can be difficult, emotional experiences, and sometimes you need to spend time talking with the interviewee after the interview, without the tape re- corder running. Let interviewees know how important their interviews will be to the oral history project, and reassure them that they were helpful. Give them some idea of how long it will take to process the interview, when they can expect to receive copies of the tape or transcript, when they will sign the deed of gift, how you expect the materials to be used, and where the interview will be deposited and opened for research. CONDUCTING INTERVI EXVS Should interviewees ever be paid for their interviews? Most oral history projects work on such limited budgets—sometimes de— pending on volunteer staff—that they rarely can afford to pay interviewees. They operate on the valid principle that having one’s life story recorded for the future is reward in itself. A very few projects, however, especially those in which the interviews are with musicians and others commonly paid to perform, have recognized some financial obligation to their participants. Blues and jazz projects have further justified their decision to pay on the potential profitability of the interviews. “Since blues is a marketable form of oral history,” wrote Walter Liniger of the Blues Archives at the University of Mississippi, “we felt morally obliged to secure the rights of the informants and to pay them a fee for their contributions.”34 Obviously, any financial arrangement depends on the resources of the sponsoring project or institution. Some projects have written stipends for interviewees into their grant proposals, similar to the honoraria paid to their advisory committee members. But whether or not payments are made, all oral historians have a responsibility to inform interviewees of the anticipated uses of their interviews, whether in publication, radio or video documentaries, or other means of public presentation that might generate royalties or other monetary compensation. ...
View Full Document

This note was uploaded on 09/08/2010 for the course ENGL 124 at San Jose State University .

Page1 / 13

Oral History - Islamic Narratives - (MAL Hunt/ey—...

This preview shows document pages 1 - 13. Sign up to view the full document.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Ask a homework question - tutors are online